Married Without Children: Parenthood, Re-imagined

Married Without Children: Parenthood, Re-imagined October 21, 2015

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Fewer Americans are becoming parents.

According to the New York Times, American birthrates are in sharp decline—in fact, they’ve been decreasing for years. The general U.S. fertility rate is at a record low, and data-collectors attribute this to women delaying pregnancy, often past their prime childbearing years.

Anecdotally, this indicates a modern cultural shift of women—and men—being less interested, inclined, or called, to pursue traditional parenthood. I am one of those women.

As early as age six, I baulked when my mother begged me to play in the plastic play lands attached to McDonald’s:

“But, mother,” I said, “It’s full of children.”

My relationship with tiny humans was complex from the start. Babies fascinated me, but their older counterparts puzzled me. Now, I am 34, and by society’s standards, I should be a mother. But, I simply don’t desire it with all my heart.

Childfree By Choice

My husband, Fred, and I are the last among the childfree holdouts of our family and peer groups. Siblings, cousins, and best friends have made us the proud aunt and uncle to growing brood that we love, even while gently questioning our choice not to have one of our own.

“You’d make fantastic parents!” They encouraged. Others were more practical in their urging.

“Who’s gonna take care of you when you’re old?” Fred’s octogenarian Granny posed last fall, when he explained we were forgoing parenthood.

“There’s no guarantee our kids would take care of us, Granny.”

“Well, ain’t that the truth?” she muttered, and I sensed a mother’s disappointment of how she thought things would be different.

Inquiries into our hypothetical biological or adoptive offspring have spread far out from our immediate circle. A few years ago, when I published Saffron Cross, a memoir on my Christian-Hindu interfaith marriage, Fred and I attended a large book conference in New York. Hearing about my interfaith work, an eager Christian stopped us on our way to the restroom: “But, how will you raise your kids?” he asked.

“We don’t feel called to have our own children,” we offered. And, there, in the middle of the convention center, we were subjected to a tirade on the sin of unnatural birth control practices.

Even more recently, at a university lecture on interfaith dialogue, the first question posed by the room full of 18-year-olds was: “How will you raise your children?” When we toured with my bookacross the southeastern U.S., even my publicist cautioned us about disclosing our childfree preferences publically. “It’s polarizing,” she said.

But, interview after interview, though we tried to avoid, deflect, and redirect the child question, it was always the first and most aggressive thing everyone wanted to know.

I only stopped receiving the push-back from my gynecologist when I switched from a female to male doctor. Prior to that, each annual exam was peppered: “Oh, sweetie. You’re still young. There’s plenty of time to change your mind.”

A Different Kind of Parenthood

While our dearest friends felt called to having their own children and yearned for it with every heartbeat, Fred and I did not. But, why was that such an issue, mostly among strangers? After all, many Americans had made a similar choice. Christians, in particular, expressed the most disapproval.

Reinventing Family

Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Emeritus Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke Divinity School Professor, cautions all Christians against such narrow-mindedness of what it means to “parent.” In response to the theological interpretation of abortion and the church’s role in preventing it, Hauerwas offers: “Biology does not make parents in the church. Baptism does.”[1] Hauerwas’ position asserts that every baptized Christian’s duty to parent, but not in the way that grandmothers, friends, strangers, college freshman, journalists, and doctors view it.

“The church reinvents the family,” Hauerwas posits, with the “obligation to introduce [these] children to the Gospel.” Under Hauerwas’ argument, the Body of Christ—the Church—becomes “parent” to all, a configuration of “family” with no blood ties and birth certificates, but rather, united by the bond of baptism.

While we do not yearn to be a full-time mother and father to little ones, Fred and I believe strongly in this kind of call to “theologically-based community parenting.” What might it look like for us—and the entire church—to lean into this reinvented family with a unique parenting role? How could all of us answer the call of feeding, teaching, mentoring, shaping, and loving the many, many young ones who surround us in need of care?

Christ was childfree, and yet he saw the value and responsibility of nurturing children. In Matthew, Chapter 19, verses 13-15, despite grumbles from the adults, Jesus welcomed children to come to him. In fact, he even said that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. If we take Christ’s words to heart, and put aside our traditional sense of what it means to be a nuclear family, we might better understand Jesus’ call to baptism as a means of progeny, the Body of Christ caring for and teaching its children.

Traditional, full-time parenting is the toughest job in the world. It takes unconditional love and grit to shape tiny humans. And, while it is a truly special and important task, not everyone is called to it. But, in reality, childfree adults are surrounded by little ones in need. One does not have to be a mother or father in the most traditional sense to assist in nurturing a child. If we believe in the power of baptism and community, then we are all parents.

This is parenthood, re-imagined.

J. Dana Trent is an award-winning author and teacher. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she is ordained in the Baptist tradition. Her first book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk tells the story of her eHarmony-born interfaith marriage. Dana blogs at jdanatrent.com and tweets @jdanatrent.

[1] Hauerwas, Stanley. “Abortion: Theologically Understood.” Taskforce of the United Methodist Church on Abortion and Sexuality, 1991. http://www.lifewatch.org/abortion.html

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32 responses to “Married Without Children: Parenthood, Re-imagined”

  1. My wife and I were married for 16 years before we had our first child. We didn’t have kids until then because we didn’t want kids until then.

    Fortunately, we didn’t hear a lot from the families, because we both had siblngs who had kids and so everyone was content with them.

    I remember when my wife got pregnant, my dad’s response was, “We’d given up on you.” Fortunately, anything they hoped for they kept to themselves.

  2. I’ve never felt any pressure to have kids. Maybe I’ve just been vocal in my child-disdain all my life. I don’t actually know a lot of people with children.

  3. Wow—16 years! That’s awesome. I love that your family allowed you space and time to come to your own decision (or, at least, as you said–they kept any disapproval or impatience to themselves). Thanks for reading and sharing, Bofa on the Sofa!

  4. Got married in 1988 to the wrong woman with a divorce two years later. Getting a vasectomy in 1999 with no children (best $45 I ever spent)…have seen how my life has turned out and am so happy I was never cursed or blessed with having children with the way things happened. On the other hand…working with handicapped children in a public school for the past several years…love all the kids I work with. Have even worked Vacation Bible School through the years and I love it.

  5. I completely agree with your perspective on this. It’s a responsibility not to be taken lightly. If you don’t feel a real burden to be a parent, then don’t be one.

    That was our decision too.

    Turns out birth control has that 1% failure rate….

    Folks ask if I would have regretted not being a parent. I think I wouldn’t have. I am thrilled to have a son, but I would have been happy as a childless couple too.

  6. The right of every child to be born to mature, responsible, committed parents, nevertheless, exceeds all other human and civil rights issues in the West by a wide margin. Nothing comes even close.

    Before the cultural revolution of the 60’s the vast majority of children were born in traditional families. Secular humanism arrived in this country from a Europe like the repulsive, destructive European rats on tropical islands.

    The cultural revolution of the 60s, which was about separating rights and privileges from responsibility in the pursuit of the self: the hedonistic philosophy that happiness is found in the direct pursuit of pleasure and the self. The ultimate extension of this philosophy, for many, is the escape from reality of mere animal existence with substance abuse.

    Marriage doesn’t work like it used to. The natural gender differences between men and women will be profoundly incompatible with each other in the post-Christian hedonistic culture of the self. In this environment there will only be short term “relationships”

    The traditional American Christian culture taught the young people that the meaning of life was something much larger than the self. So when young people got married as equal partners in goals much larger than the self, these this same incompatible features of gender became very complementary to the commitments to God, family, church, and community.

    We really did have a Norman Rockwell America across the broad center of our traditionally Christian society.

  7. What’s missing from her understanding of marriage and children is what marriage and sexuality is in the Christian understanding of it. Marriage is the very image of the love between Christ and his Bride, the Church. In Christ we see the fulfillment of the duty of a husband who is to love his Bride, by giving himself totally to her even unto death. The Church submits her life to her husband and the two become one. Just as the union of Christ and the Church brings about spiritual and eternal life and is fruitful, the union of a husband and a bride also brings about life and is fruitful. In this sense the very decision of a married couple to purposefully not be fruitful in their marriage is a distortion of the image of Christ’s union with his Church and this does damage to all who witness it.

    The second aspect is the sexual act itself. The cross becomes the image of true sexuality where Jesus after forming his covenant with the Church through the last supper and submitting his will to the Church before God in the garden of Gethsemane gives his body over to his bride on the cross and consummates the marriage. This is a total giving of self which is what sex is. To give yourself totally to your spouse means to give your mind, body and soul which includes your fertility. To purposefully withhold your fertility is to contradict the sexual act and to violate its image. This is why contraception was universally condemned by every Christian denomination until the 1930s or so.

    Don’t believe the new age and it’s lies. God wants you to be fruitful, a large family is a symbol of God’s generosity. Trust in him and enjoy the beautiful gift of fertility that he has given us. Much love and prayers for your journey to becoming open to life.

  8. The reason people don´t have children is a personal one and it is less than helpful when Christians (and others) treat the decision to not have children as a sinful one.

  9. You’re welcome to your fecundity and your belief.

    You’re UNwelcome if you wish to foist it on others.

  10. as long as one wasn’t poor, or a racial minority, or didn’t object to spousal abuse, or….

  11. My belief is exactly that a belief. I truly believe God exists and that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. If that is true than my belief about marriage, what it means and our responsibility towards it is not a subjective opinion but an actual reality. I’m not forcing anybody to do anything just hoping to share a truth with others because what we do matters and matters for eternity. That’s important enough to share. The writer of the article invoked Christianity so as a fellow Christian it is worth while to explain misunderstandings. Jesus certainly pushed the reality of our actions on others so I don’t see why I should be unwelcome to do so if it is in line with the teachings of Christianity.

  12. Gender is a fabricated binary construct, into which almost nobody fits comfortably. Thus it becomes a burden that people well-meaningly but ill-advisably try to stuff themselves, and there is no benefit realized from it.
    Remember that Rubbermaid shape ball you probably played with as a toddler? Various shapes, various openings. None of them had to be (or could be) manipulated to fit into only two openings. That’s the complexity of human nature and intelligence.
    If my daughter wants to be a truck driver or firefighter, and my son wants to be an RN, why should I discourage their gifts? If one has a burning desire for parenthood, and the other doesn’t, wouldn’t it be selfish to encourage kids for the one who has no interest in parenting? Who benefits? Certainly not the children who would be born to a less than interested parent. He/she certainly doesn’t owe “society” children. Isn’t there quite enough ill-advised child bearing being done already?
    If you believe in a supreme being, it gave us different gifts, with the intent that they be used to the fullest of our ability. Not everyone is born to be a parent.

  13. And those who are wholly disinterested in parenting should do themselves, and the world a favor, and not have them. That’s a valid choice, and congratulations on knowing yourself.

  14. I’m sure my in-laws have always wondered why my husband and I never had kids, but they had the good manners not to ask.

  15. This seems to be the modern response to anything and everything. If our religious beliefs are purely subjective and have no consequences what is the point in having a belief in the first place? Your belief should be dictated by reality yet people have somehow convinced themselves that their beliefs dictate reality. What we believe only means something if in fact what we believe is actually true. “I believe Reasonable Doubt is the greatest rap album ever made” is a completely subjective belief. It is completely subjective because the question itself demands a subjective answer. “I believe God exists” is a partially objective belief. It is objective because the question itself demands an objective answer, either God actually exists or actually doesn’t. The reality of God’s existence is either objectively true or objectively false. The belief is only partially objective in that we cannot objectively arrive at the correct conclusion. Just like thousands of years ago if you asked a person if we live in a heliocentric or geocentric solar system you would have likely got all sorts of answers which were subjectively arrived at yet the fact that our solar system is a heliocentric system is an objectively true fact back then as it is now. This fact has consequences just as whether or not God exists has consequences even though at the present moment we don’t have objective means to answer the question. And if God exists as understood through the revelation of Christianity, then our actions and the moral implications of them have actual consequences.

    So explaining to me how my beliefs are out of sync with reality would be a wonderful thing to share with me as I’d love to balance your thoughts with my own to better understand reality. This is what I have done on an article written by a Christian. I have shared how the reality of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and it’s meaning in relation to the Church is out of sync with the belief that a married couple can purposefully choose to not have children. But simply saying your beliefs are subjective does nothing to help me, yourself or anybody reading to better understand the life they live.

  16. A belief or disbelief in god or gods is ALWAYS subjective and never objective. The reason is because there is no empirical evidence for or against.
    Here’s an objective belief: Daylight savings time ends on November 1st at 2am. Here’s another. Our atmosphere reflects blue light (the sky is blue, actually colorless, but appears blue in the presence of sunlight). Water is wet, and ice is cold. Those are objective beliefs, because they are easily verifiable.
    Here’s another objective belief. Married couples can choose not to have children. In fact, it’s demonstrably a fact. Christian or otherwise. There is no scriptural basis for a presumption of children in marriage, either. Christian marriage is ordered first toward the couple, and secondarily toward the begetting and nurture of children. That being said, there is no requirement for having them. There is no fertility requirement inherent in marriage, and contraception is a matter of conscience for individual couples. The scriptures themselves are silent on the matter.

  17. Thanks for sharing. I wouldn’t say the scriptures are silent on contraception. There is a huge difference between choosing to not have children and not being able to have children. There is no fertility requirement for marriage but that is not the same thing as saying a married couple can choose to not have children (as in it is morally acceptable to do so). Every single time a couple could not conceive in the Bible it was considered a curse until God would lift the curse, bless the couple and “open the womb”. To the opposite there is a time in the Bible where a person purposefully tries to not conceive which is in the story of Tamar and Onan in Genesis. Onan “spills his seed” in order to not conceive and God was greatly offended and struck Onan dead (Genesis 38). Couple these two Biblical realities with 2,000 years of consistent teaching from the Catholic Church along with 1,900 years of consistent teaching from practically every other Christian who has existed and it is pretty safe to say that contraception is morally unacceptable for a Christian. And for objectivity my point is that objective realties have actual consequences even if we can only arrive at our concluissions subjectively. If God exists and Jesus Christ is God and God does not change his mind on morality then using contraception is a moral evil and has actual consequences on a persons soul. So it is a fairly important thing to try to figure out if it is morally ok. As a Christian you have to ignore the Bible, ignore all of Christian history and make some pretty thin arguments in order to convince yourself that contraception is morally ok.

  18. Oh, but it IS the same thing.
    Now as to Onan, consider what Onan’s real sin was. WHY was Onan “spilling his seed?” What was his motivation? What was his legal duty at the time?
    If you look at these matters you will see that the sin of Onan was greed. He was legally obligated to father an heir for his dead brother. AN heir, not endless heirs. Onan knew that his dead brother not having an heir meant a bigger piece of the pie for Onan. Thus, he acted out of greed, and defiance for law as it existed at the time.
    The sin of Onan was greed, not family planning. Consider that at the time, if Onan knew about the withdrawal method, it had to have been common knowledge, and widely practiced. Yet there are no mass executions of contracepting men recorded.
    That’s the problem with too many so-called Christians. They do not read or understand their buy-bull, nor do they necessarily live by it. But they want to make damn sure everyone else lives by what they THINK it says (but doesn’t actually say).

  19. Thanks, you bring up a great point about not seeing a mass execution of men who had used the pull out method. My thought on that would be that the law and penalties for breaking the law occurs during the time of Moses well after Onan’s time so perhaps by the time the law is put in place where one might be guilty of such an act it was well understood that the act was morally wrong especially in light of how God dealt with Onan – so a mass amount of people would not have used the pull out method. Another thought is that you don’t see anything in the affirmative saying people used the pull out method and it was considered ok, but you certainly do see very large families which would indicate that many people would probably not even consider using such a method (remember the command to Israel and mankind to be fruitful and multiply). But very good points to chew upon.

    The other part of your argument is not consistent in my view because we know what the penalty is for not providing an heir and it certainly wasn’t death. In Deuteronomy chapter 25 verse 7-10, scripture details the penalty which basically is to be shamed in public where the woman would “strip his sandal from his foot and spit in his face”. So there seems to be something more egregious occurring in the story of Onan than being greedy and not providing an heir. And yes of course his sin is also greed. Just like murder is the outward manifestation of an inward anger, in this case spilling his seed is the outward manifestation of his inward greed. Again, my original point about contraception is not in reference to Onan it is in reference to Christ and his sacrificial offering of his life on the cross to his Church. That along with almost every Christian/Jew who had walked the earth until the last 100 years agreed that contraception was/is morally evil, makes the argument that contraception is wrong pretty convincing to me. The Old Testament was written in a Jewish context of course and the Jewish people have a term called Onanism derived from this story which describes masturbation and contraceptive acts that frustrate the sexual act. So you are in a sliver of a minority of people who have ever read this text and come to your conclusion – you just happen to be in a majority in the United States in the year 2015 which makes you see your interpretation as a bit more
    reasonable.

    I don’t know why you are slighting Christians here. To be Christian is in the very simplest sense to acknowledge that you are a sinful person and therefore need the righteousness of God to cover up your sins. By seeing your sin you are able to humble yourself, stop looking inward and begin to search outward for a redeemer and by Grace arriving at a faith in Christ as your savior. But to see yourself as sinful is to first acknowledge certain acts as sin knowing very well you will fail on a daily basis. I have had sex before marriage, I have regrettably used a plan B pill, I have used contraception and all of these things are like stab wounds to my soul that I still shutter at and pray that God will have mercy on my soul. Yet I can also say that in turning back to God and repenting of what I had done, he has provided me and my now wife with the Grace to both abstain from sex (for a few years prior to marriage) and now refrain from using contraception as a married couple. But much more he has provided us with the great awe of the human body which allows me to see my wife as the amazing created being that she is, respecting every aspect of her personhood including her fertility. This has been great for our marriage and I can’t wait to have a child with her. The Grace and freedom of forgiveness and the happiness from trying to live a holy life is immeasurable though at times hard. Christians are called to be saints not sinners but we have to acknowledge we are sinners first so that God can transform us to saints.

  20. Nobody even SAID the penalty for not providing an heir was death. Certainly not me. And there is nothing in the Bible stating that the pull-out method would at any point be unlawful. You are still focusing on the act, and not the motivation, which is clearly stated in the story! To wit, in some form or another, it’s stated that he knew the child wouldn’t be his. He was greedy and didn’t want to father a child he would have to split his inheritance with. He didn’t refuse to marry the girl, as he could have done, and would have faced social sanctions, as you say. He was trying to be “shifty” or “sneaky” about it.
    That doesn’t translate to an absolute mandate for all married couples to people the world with as many lives as possible. I always thought a commandment was missing. “Thou shall turn off the tap when the tub is full.” Also missing is the acknowledgment that when you “pray” to what you consider a supreme being, you don’t ignore the answers you get. Your Jesus healed people by miraculous means. But he never, ever said trust not in physicians, and in fact, Luke was a physician. Have you ever given consideration to the fact that your god may answer prayers by means of modern medicine? Have you considered that you have a brain, and he expects you to use it? Children are wonderful. Too many children are not a positive. We still all only have 24 hours in a day to devote to children, and to do our best, we must deal with our own needs as well. Too many kids equals either a mother who stays at home to take care of them while the man labors as many hours as humanly possible to keep the family in poverty, or the older kids raising the younger kids (commonly known as the Duggar method), or some combination of the two.

  21. I’ve presented my thoughts as best I can. I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, I’m just trying to help others live an authentic Christian life which will benefit their souls
    and enrich their lives. You have my prayers lady_black thanks for addressing my points and providing some good dialogue. Life brings many sufferings so hold
    close to the cross because suffering ultimately unites us with Christ and we can have hope that the glory to come will far surpass the sufferings of our present day. Children are a blessing to us all, may we receive them with open
    arms and guide them to eternal life. If you have specific questions I wouldn’t mind to dialogue further but I think we both presented our points of view.

  22. It has always seemed to me transparently obvious that if people don’t wish to have children, then they obviously ought not to have children. I should have thought anyone with half a brain would agree with that, since the last thing society needs is any more children born to parents who do not actually wish to be parents.
    But I never cease to be surprised by folks who willfully distort scripture as if to say, “Aha! The Bible says you gotta have kids!” And the number of folks who take such untrue and toxic idea seriously is frightening.
    In this day of population glut, it is such a virtue that some choose not to have children, and there are those who ignore common sense and keep prattling along about how it surely must be God’s will that every couple have yet more children.
    We need to start thinking before we speak about this, and so far, a lot of folks (see the writer who just can’t stop writing his “opinion” here) just don’t get it, it would seem.
    Sorry for the rant, but this really, really upsets me. Pretending that God wants us to overpopulate the world comes close to heretical crime — uh, in my humble opinion.

  23. I have some sympathy at least for the birth defects argument. Yes, there is an increased risk of Down’s syndrome etc.

    But there are risks in having kids when you aren’t ready too, and Down’s isn’t the end of the world. A Down’s kid can be a real joy. And a heartbreak. Both.

    We take all sorts of risks every day before we even get out of bed. Part of being an adult is simply choosing which risks you can live with.

    The argument about being selfish though really pisses me off. As if having kids isn’t ever a selfish decision. Either way, the heart wants what the heart wants.

    I was a dad at 37. At first I was told I was selfish for not getting married at 21, and then I was selfish for not having kids at 30.

    I’m sure I’m selfish today for some other reason.

  24. BT: Thanks for this perspective–I appreciate that you can/could see yourself as both a thrilled parent and a happy childless person, too. Often, life is not black-and-white, but layered, which makes it beautiful.

  25. Don: Thanks for reading. It sounds like you have discovered many ways to “parent,” without having children of your own.

  26. I’ve just finished reading many of the new comments. Thank you all for reading and sharing your thoughts. I’m delighted the article has generated such responses (on both sides)!

  27. Since you claim to be a progressive, Dana, you truly are like a new-age Hindu, not a Christian. When I used to shop at Family Christian, I noticed the shelves becoming more and more filled with books by progressives such as yourself. I no longer frequent that store, which I now refer to as Family Hindu.

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